Posted November 2, 2014 by Jeff in Tunes

Sloan: The power of four

Sloan photo by Lisa Mark
Sloan photo by Lisa Mark

The Toronto-based indie rock group Sloan is a true democracy. All four members — Jay Ferguson, Chris Murphy, Patrick Pentland and Andrew Scott —write songs for each album. The band’s latest release, Commonwealth, is a double album with each member staking out a single side. The album’s final track, “Forty-Eight Portraits,” is an 18-minute pop suite. Over the past couple of decades, the band has delivered 10 albums and more than 30 singles, as well as multiple EPs, hits and rarities collections, live albums and official bootlegs. Scott phoned from the road to talk about the new album and the band’s lengthy career.

Tell me a bit about what you set out to accomplish with The Commonwealth. What prompted the idea to give each of the four members their own side of a record?
We’ve always been a band that’s boasted four singers and songwriters. We’ve always tried to dissuade anyone from putting out a solo record. No one has ever felt that desire because they get to do whatever the fuck you want in the context of the band. We had talked about the notion over the years. This was the time where it made sense for us. We just said, “Fuck it. Let’s do it. Everybody gets a side of wax. Everyone can curate their own real estate and do whatever the hell we want.” It’s not different from how we’ve made records in the past. People can make decisions but it comes down to he who is working on his stuff. That’s always the case with our records but this is one is laid out a little more clearly.

To me, the album still sounds cohesive. Does it sound that way to you?
I can’t see it or hear it objectively. I’m too inside the glass box. I know what you mean and that term “cohesive” has been bandied about for so many years. Or not cohesive. I don’t give a shit. It just comes out the way it comes out and you can take it or leave it.

Is the opening number “We’ve Come this Far” supposed to be a reflection on the band’s accomplishments?
I don’t know. It’s Jay’s song. I can’t comment on his intentions lyrically or thematically or anything like that. I just like playing it. I don’t even pay attention to the lyrics. I just listen to the music.

What inspired “Forty-Eight Portraits?”
There’s no inspiration. I had all kinds of these piano-based chord progressions and songlets kicking around for how many ever years. We keep these vaults of throwaways that one day down the road will become a-list material, so to speak. I just figured, I had this 20 minutes to work with and I’d make a big ADD chord rollercoaster. This is the form where it makes sense, I guess. On a standard 12-song CD, it wouldn’t work.

Was that the sound of a dog barking?
That is my dog Tommy barking. He’s a good vocalist. That was one take.

Did you intend to put him on the record or was it accidental?
I fully intended to put him on the record. When I was piecing it together and knew that I wanted this nod to The Pretty Things. It’s like a three-minute bullshit percussion thing. I’ve already seen it described it as Tom Waits-ian and free form jazz and those descriptions are all fine in my opinion. I knew I wanted the dog barking. I don’t of anyone else who has the sound of a barking dog except for the Beastie Boys.

I think there’s a Jane’s Addiction song.
That’s right. “Been Caught Stealing.” I’m not necessarily channeling Jane’s Addiction. I prefer the Beastie Boys.

When the band formed in Halifax in 1991 was there much of a music scene in Nova Scotia?
Yeah. There was a very fertile music scene there long before we came around. It was a very art-rock and punk-rock scene. It was huge and hugely influential on all of us. We all had bands prior to this band too. Halifax was a small enough town that everyone knew everybody because the scene was so insular.

You ended up on Geffen in 1992. What led to the quick signing?
It was a weird stroke of luck, I guess, depending on how you look at it. There was this provincial music awards in Halifax called the East Coast Music Awards. It’s so colloquial and silly. Back when we were forming, the kind of music we were into was never represented. It was just fiddle music and shitty folk. We rented a gallery and did our no-case.  It was right on the heels of Nirvana and Sonic Youth and there were a few label reps who came around and saw us and loved us. This one guy Cameron Carpenter who worked for MCA took our cassette tape to his boss in Toronto. When his boss passed on it he sent it to his friend at Geffen who worked for the guy who signed GNR and a bunch of other hair metal. He loved it and wanted to sign us. We were his first official signing. It was like throwing him a bone. We played a show in L.A. and he had Weezer open for us. That was the next band he signed and the rest is history.

Did Weezer get most of the attention?
Our record was thrown against the wall and Weezer’s was thrown against the wall. Which one stuck? It’s a total random lottery. The major labels were going through this huge upheaval and everyone was going through this uncertainty. No one knew if they were going to have a job in the morning. Our band was this weird band from Canada. It’s like the people at the label thought, “They have four songwriters. How do you market that?” The mentality was lazy and risk averse. There was a point where they suggested to have one person — Chris Murphy — sing everything. That defeats the aim of what we set out to do. At that point, they buried us. The learning curve was pretty vertical for us. We were pretty young and right out of the gate we were on this massive American label. We put out two records with them. Looking back, we don’t have any regrets. It was all as it should have been.

Had we been super successful as a result of that, we probably wouldn’t be around today.

So, what has been the key to keeping the band going for so long with no line-up changes?
I think it’s many fold. We appreciate the line of work. We don’t make a lot of money, but we all own homes in downtown Toronto. We’re making a living but it’s not high on the hog. That’s not what it was about anyway. It was never intended as a get rich quick scheme. We wanted to make art and share it with whoever was into it. We’re fortunate to still be doing it 25 years down the road. I think we make relevant. quality work, which is the most important thing because the records we leave behind will remain in the history books so to speak. In my opinion, if our most recent record isn’t as good as or better than the last one, then that’s when my red flag goes up. It’s the personal quality control that you have to constantly monitor.

You seem to tour regularly too.
Definitely every year we’re out on the road in some way shape or form. Were not road monsters. We figure it out economically. It’s time sensitive in Canada. There’s only a six-month window of the year that you can be out on the road. The summer is just driving around picking up checks. We go play the dingdong volleyball festival in who knows where and go pay our hydro bill. But really, those are fun gigs too.

Upcoming 2014 Shows










Cleveland, OH @ Grog Shop

Detroit, MI @ St. Andrew’s Hall

Buffalo, NY @ The Tralf

Hamden, CT @ The Ballroom

New York, NY @ Bowery Ballroom

Boston, MA @ Great Scott

Washington, DC @ Rock and Roll Hotel

Carrboro, NC @ Cat’s Cradle

Philadelphia, PA @ Boot and Saddle


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected]